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Every winter we consider how we’re carrying out our mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture. We’re still committed to that mission, and also to keeping up constructive connections with neighbors to whom our way of life may seem foreign. We try different ways to reach out. Some fail. Others grow.
This will be our twelfth year of inviting families to unplug from their electronic devices during the school’s spring break week and take part in free community activities. Local libraries, historical societies, state parks and other groups will host events. I remember how hard it felt to explain the concept of Screen-Free Week for the first couple of years. Now it’s becoming a local tradition, and we’re learning to coordinate farm activities with other groups’ offerings. This year area libraries are partnering with the Tug Hill Tomorrow land trust to offer nature-themed programs. During Screen-Free Week people can go to the Sandy Creek and Orwell libraries for salamander-related readings and crafts, and then come here to look for salamanders under rocks and in pond edges. Wildlife here is smaller and less dramatic than what kids see on nature programs, but I remember one fascinated kid walking with us, spotting wildflowers, guessing who had left animal tracks, finding salamanders, and saying, “Well, who wouldn’t like nature if they knew there was all this going on in it?”
The response from funeral directors has varied. During the first year’s survey when I pointed out to one funeral director (after a polite request had failed) that they were legally required to make their general price list available, she expressed the hope that that law would soon be changed and that she would be able to sue people like me; this year she just gave me the information I requested. This year another funeral director pointed out that he donated to an agency we’ve worked with. He asked if we recommended generous funeral directors like him; when I said that we just offered basic pricing information, he said he might have to stop donating if his generosity was going to be repaid by ingratitude and interference. But another funeral home sent us their new pricelist along with a handwritten note saying “Thank you”—and they had cut their prices by almost one-third. And this year, when I mentioned the new price survey at a Task Force meeting, another member said she’d been passing that information on to rehab centers.
This February I was invited to join a larger group working on poverty-related issues. The group discussed vision statements, procedural rules, and metrics for evaluating success. I struggled to understand how parts of our discussions related to the needs around us. Perhaps this was answered by remarks about how grant-giving organizations preferred requests that came out of Collective Impact initiatives. I was troubled when the meeting ended with the agreement to hire a pricey inspirational speaker and nonprofit advisor to address the group and help us develop a vision, but to the others at the table this made sense.
No wonder, given the different worlds we come from. Many other agencies shape their work around grant funding as they strive to address large-scale issues like the county’s lack of decent affordable housing, mental health care, and transportation access. Here at the farm our work is determined by the needs we see around us, by our skills and limitations, and by the amount of time and energy we have to give. We don’t have programs; we do subsistence work so we have what we need to sustain ourselves and to share, and we respond personally to the people who come to us. People give us money without strings attached so we can do this; I continue to be surprised by and grateful for this generosity. I’m also grateful for the Catholic Worker’s emphasis on personalism.
At the same time, I am aware of all the needs that we don’t know how to meet, and of the times when I and my neighbors have been helped by what the CW Aims and Means describe unflatteringly as “impersonal ‘charity.’” I’m grateful for my Medicaid coverage. I’m grateful for the kindness and expertise of agency workers met through the Pulaski task force who have helped some of our neighbors get needed medical care or food assistance I am still trying to learn how we can best help each other as we work in our different ways. –by Joanna
Reflections On My Reading by Lorraine
The winter slow time has been a blessing for me, more time for reading and less guilt over limitations imposed by back pain. I fell twice on snow and ice around the turn of the year and ended up getting physical therapy which should help increase my core strength as well as dealing with the immediate problem. Doing exercises multiple times each day reminds me to pray for those in pain, and recovery makes me newly grateful for the everyday wonder of normal pain-free movement. I’ve also been grateful for books that help me to make sense of the daily news by fitting it into some broader context.
Joanna introduced me to the writings of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who was given the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and justice work. The following are quotes from her memoir Unbowed that connected for me with my life at the farm or with current events:
“Politicians stir people up and give them reasons to blame their own predicaments on people from other ethnic groups.
Professionals can make simple things complicated. I don’t think you need a diploma to plant a tree.
Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance.
Everything was now perceived as having a monetary value . . . if you can sell it, you forget about protecting it.
No matter how much you try to destroy it, you can’t stop truth and justice from sprouting.”
In Replenishing the Earth, Maathai lays out the connections between spiritual traditions and care for the earth. “Our needs and wants are outstripping the ability of the earth to provide, and some of us will have to do with less if those who have very little are going to have enough to survive” reminds me of the ‘live simply’ motto painted on a beam in our barn. “Gratitude is the simple acknowledgment of the bounty with which you have been blessed and a sense of responsibility for using it wisely” and “I have come to accept that you cannot do everything, and no one should expect you to—including yourself” helped when my attitude needed adjusting. “No society has ever declared that it has enough” and “It is unlikely that, given the effects of climate change, any wall will be high enough, any region remote enough, or any enclave rich enough to withstand every hurricane, flood, drought, earthquake, or spreading desert” expose the flaws in accepted popular opinion. And finally two quotes that are like Quaker queries, something to ponder without one ‘right’ answer: “Can we really put a price tag on the carbon dioxide trees capture? What about values such as compassion or empathy? What about justice or equity?” and “[With all our possessions] are we happier, more fulfilled? Are we living a life that is all we had hoped it would be? Or are we simply feeding our craving—and in the process destroying the very life systems that sustain all?”
From Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River and Alfredo Corchado’s Homelands I learned some history and was able to see from new perspectives the immigration issues that dominate headlines and divide the country. The life portrayed inHeartland, Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, speaks of poverty in ways that speak to me. “the sort of poor who, whether by spirit or circumstances, found a way to feed themselves and whoever else needed a meal” sounds like farms I’ve known. “The shaming of the poor is a unique form of bigotry . . . it’s about what your actions have failed to accomplish—financial success . . . about your worth in a supposed meritocracy” and “the distance between how poverty is handled in public policy and what it looks like in human lives” apply here as well as in Kansas.
This winter has not been as snowy as many that we’ve experienced here. This meant that I was able to keep bringing out logs from the woods right into mid-January. I have made a few alterations to the log skidding arch which have made it a little handier, and I welded together a new hitch assembly for one of the tractors to use with the arch. We had a lot of people coming to buy lumber at the sawmill in December and it was nice that the increased demand and the good weather coincided. We’ve burned most of the wood in the main woodshed as I write this in mid- February but there is enough there for the rest of the month, and then we have what I call the emergency wood pile in the new barn, which isn’t needed in some years but will be very handy this time. I brought out a couple of loads of firewood from the woods when the snow was low and dumped them outside the woodshed, and there is more already cut in the woods and waiting to be fetched in the spring.
We decided in January that the restaurant-type dishwasher in the kitchen was really not of much use to us now since we don’t have large groups of people staying anymore. Another problem was that the store where we used to get the chemicals for it closed about a year ago. In February we decided to put it up for sale on Craigslist and a brewery starting business on Seneca Lake bought it and took it away. The countertops and cabinets on either side of the dishwasher are not in the best shape, so we found an inexpensive longer piece of preformed countertop to fill the space along that whole wall,and I am building new cabinets to go under it. The old sink at that end of the kitchen also needs to be replaced, as the mounting bars have rusted away, so I will do that at the same time and reconfigure the plumbing. I hope to have all of that done before the end of February. We will also raise the counter at that end of the kitchen to standard height. It has been a little bit shorter to line up with the dishwasher.
This spring, once the woodshed is filled, my main task will be to replace the shingles on the side of the barn that faces the road. I did the back side last summer, but I am hoping to get started a little earlier this year than I did then. This year’s side of the roof has 11 of the 12 skylights, and a very peculiar valley where two curved roofs meet, so it will be a little more intellectually stimulating.
This winter I have again been delivering firewood from sawmill slabs to a neighbor with health troubles. I usually try to do more of that before winter so the wood has more time to dry and it is easier to get it to the woodshed, but last year I didn’t get caught up on our own firewood till later than usual because I was rebuilding one of the sheds and couldn’t fill it till afterward. One of the people for whom I built a ramp last fall mentioned that he sometimes needed his roof shoveled in the winter, and I went over there once this year to clear off the trailer and outbuildings for him. We haven’t had a really snowy winter overall, so we haven’t had to shovel any roofs here yet.
Catholic Worker Farm Gathering by Joanna
I’m just back from the fifth annual Catholic Worker farm gathering (my third), which was hosted and organized by Anathoth Community Farm, DRAT Farm, St. Isidore Farm, and Lake City Catholic Worker Farm. I’ve enjoyed the company, the food, the music, and the chance to talk and pray with others who are living their way into some of the same questions that shape my life.
In a roundtable on community organizing beyond the CW we discussed the tension between living an alternative to the consumer culture and staying constructively engaged with neighbors to whom such a life may seem foreign. We were organizing for a wide variety of things, ranging from neighborhood projects to broader campaigns for reformed agricultural policy, racial justice, prison abolition etc. We shared our frustrations and perplexities, and also a few approaches that had helped us build relationships, bridge divides and explore new possibilities. These included asking questions which elicited complex stories rather than simple talking points, listening attentively, spending time together without a controversial agenda, staying engaged over the long term, and avoiding buzzwords that trigger other people’s assumptions and raise their defenses (for instance, some participants had found that politically conservative farmers who were irked by talk about sustainability were glad to talk and think about health—personal health, soil health, community health—in a way that addressed the same essential issues.)
Several participants framed the issue in terms of creativity, breaking out of monolithic assumptions (all problems must be dealt with by paid and accredited experts; peace must always be maintained by force; etc) and standard polarized either-or choices (liberal or conservative; generosity or security; jobs or environmental protection). Sometimes this means stepping back from the immediate argument or problem and asking people to think of what they value: What do you most want for this community? What would love look like in this situation? Sometimes it means accepting the role of a holy fool—someone whose position outside accepted norms and structures may seem ridiculous or strange, but may also demonstrate the fact that there are more possible ways of living in this world than we are usually encouraged to believe.
I also took part in roundtable conversations about how we handle mental health issues in community, about the encyclical Laudato Si/On Care For Our Common Home, and about creative approaches to aging on Catholic Worker farms. Other roundtables addressed nuclear policy, social media, farm economics, and the ethics of land ownership. Impromptu conversations touched on family relationships within and beyond the Catholic Worker, the challenges of hosting groups in a way that is meaningful and not exhausting, and the details of growing mushrooms, dealing with animal and insect pests in the garden and greenhouse, and feeding rabbits. During the keynote, four Catholic Workers talked about their recent arrest for turning off an oil pipeline after consulting with indigenous communities immediately affected by pipeline issues & reflecting on the long-term harm done by climate change, and old & new farmers from Anathoth described how they’re learning to appreciate and tend the life of soil microorganisms on their farm while also recapturing carbon dioxide.
There were also delicious meals with many farm-grown ingredients and a sprightly contradance with live music by CWers. And before meals, and between sessions, and in the evenings starting early and continuing after I had toddled off to my couch in the church basement, there was harmony singing, different voices coming together to create something richly layered and beautiful.
The annual meeting of St. Francis Farm Community will be held on April 13. We appreciate the time and attention of our off-farm Directors, Margaret Clerkin, Andrew Nelson, and Sarah VanNorstrand.
Lorraine will be dividing perennial herbs and flowers in April and May and is happy to share plants with any who want them.
We’ll celebrate Screen-Free Week during the school’s April vacation, 4/15-4/20. More information is online at www.screenfree.stfrancisfarm.org
Joanna has fixed errors at http://stfrancisfarm.org (if you still see problems, let us know.) She’ll update the homepage quarterly when each newsletter is posted, and more frequent updates will appear on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stfrancisfarmcommunity/
Another spring brings wildflowers and black flies, more work and visitors, nesting birds and hungry woodchucks. The slow time and our annual meeting are behind us. Necessary work-pulling weeds and cutting firewood, planting seeds and mending fences-provides an antidote to news-induced despair. Autocrats swagger, wealth gaps widen, and migrants flee but find no refuge. But light grows, thrushes sing, trees leaf out, tadpoles emerge from jelly eggs. We thank the Creator for life that thrives in spite of heedless greed, and we invite others to come enjoy what can’t be bought nor sold.
During school vacation week in April, Joanna again organized ScreenFree activities at the farm and in the wider community. Five children and eight adults, all new to the farm, came for a sunset nature walk and stayed to observe woodcocks displaying at dusk. They were attentive, walked the trails without tiring or complaining, asked questions and took brochures. Nobody came to help with work on the afternoon scheduled for volunteers to help with garden or trails. (article continues after photos)
Last year during ScreenFree week we held a ‘barn dance’ in Richland at the suggestion of Sarah VanNorstrand who calls contradances and is on our Board of Directors. She is interested in promoting small community dances and noticed the old school building that houses the Halfshire in Richland. They didn’t charge us rent for the use of the space, Sarah volunteered to call, and Eileen Kalfass and Zeke Smukler to play fiddle and guitar, while Zach played banjo. Only about a dozen people came but they enjoyed dancing and live music so we tried again. Don Hughes on keyboard joined Eileen and Zach this year. With better publicity, more than 55 people came, filling the space cleared for dancing. I was pleased to see people of all ages dancing and laughing together without any stimulant other than the music, especially after Joanna had reported after her last community task force meeting that some attenders blamed rising drug use on ‘kids having nothing to do’ in this area. (article continues after pictures)
May 10th, Joanna and I took feathers and skulls, salamanders and a frog, pond water with its tiny critters, wooden toys and farm photos to the library in Pulaski. The new librarian had invited us for the second in a Discover and Learn series. I was wishing I was back at the farm getting some work done because nobody had shown up. Then a father with two young boys returning books and came over to see what we had brought. He told us that they were neighbors who had moved in around the corner on route 22 and often passed the farm. The boys were interested in the live critters and able to identify many of the skulls and feathers. One kept trying until he was able to place all the round blocks without tipping the crocodile and spilling them. I hope if it ever stops raining, they’ll come walk our trails and find salamanders under rocks and maybe take some plants or even help in the gardens. (article continues below pictures)
This spring I’ve shared divisions of perennial herbs and flowers and hope they flourish wherever they’re planted. Zach has pulled the ‘chariot’ he built last year so visitors who couldn’t walk so far could go see the trillium and the pasture pond. I hope people will keep finding this a place of peace, a respite from distractions and consumerism, a point of contact with creation and their Creator. –by Lorraine
Farm Update (written May 13) by Joanna
I used to imagine that learning how to farm was a clear and linear process in which more and more questions were answered by experience and the way to grow food well in a particular place became ever clearer. It hasn’t been quite that simple. The place remains the same, but the climate and the creatures we’re working with keep changing.
This has been another cold spring like last year’s, but while last year turned dry as soon as we were able to start planting, this year has stayed very wet. The pastures are lush and lovely, but often the goats stay inside because of hard rain (or go out and eat the soaking grass and pick up more worms). The eggplant, pepper and tomato seedlings in the greenhouse are growing slowly in the gray weather, though their color is healthy and they’re compact and sturdy. I’ve already set out chard, kale and onions, all of which are staying healthy without watering but growing rather slowly. I didn’t get peas in until mid-April, and they took their time growing after that—they’re still only about three inches high, though they’re thick and dark green. Potatoes went in at the beginning of May; their shoots still haven’t emerged, but that may be just as well since the temperatures are still quite low. Lettuce and spinach are also progressing slowly, though we’re still getting salad greens from plants in pots started in the greenhouse. We just had our first asparagus to eat on Mother’s Day, and the rhubarb began a little before that. Our shiitake logs, which thrive in the damp weather, have been producing mushrooms since mid-April. The lateness of our spring harvests is made easier by the abundance of last year’s storage crops. We had potatoes, carrots and parsnips from the wellhouse/root cellar and garlic and onions from cool dry storage to use and give away into May.
On April 28 our new goat Nan gave birth to twin kids, a buckling and a doeling. The buckling never figured out how to suckle; our attempts to help him, and then to warm him up, failed, and he died at just over a day old. But the doeling, Honey, is thriving, learning to hop and to graze. Nan doesn’t milk well through the winter, so we plan to sell her, along with Honey, to the Amish neighbor whose buck fathered Honey. We’re hoping to get another doe from the same farm that sold us our doe Amada, who is still producing plenty of milk after kidding in spring 2018.
Last fall our rabbit breedings didn’t produce any kits, and I was afraid I might have overfed the does to the point where they couldn’t conceive. I watched their weights through the winter and we bred them again this spring. The first two breedings produced nothing, and we thought we might need to stop raising rabbits, or to get rid of our stock and start over. Then on April 15 our young doe Kittery gave birth to seven kits. The week after that one of her sisters had six kits, and then their mother, our oldest doe, whose first breeding this spring had failed, had six. We’re guessing that our buck went heat-sterile last August when the nights stayed warm, but now he’s viable again. By the time Kittery’s young were ready to start eating solid food we had enough grass and legumes to cut for them.
We’re also enjoying the harvests that come by grace, without our work and worrying. The cool gray weather has slowed the development of the fiddleheads and wild leek greens and allowed us to enjoy eating them over an unusually long season. And just last week when I walked in the woods with a friend we spotted many shiitake mushrooms growing from stumps that we’d inoculated nine years ago and given up on perhaps five years ago. We should keep getting harvests for some years now, if we pay attention and notice when they’re ready.
I’m still trying to learn how to grow things well in our changing seasons, and also how to cultivate patience, attention and gratitude. That process is not linear either, but it can be satisfying.
Our maple sugar season this year was short, but we still got enough. The first run of the year in late February ended with a cold snap and very high winds so the sap got frozen into the buckets for a couple of weeks. A few lids and buckets blew away but all were eventually found as the snow melted. Overall we made about 9 gallons of syrup from 39 taps. I was talking to one of our Amish neighbors this spring about how to get the taps clean inside and he suggested boiling them, which I will try.
Due to the long cold winter we burned all of the wood in the main shed and in the extra stack in the new building, and by now we have burned most of what had been meant for summer wood. I was able to go to the woods during several days in March, with a sled to carry the chain saw and such, while the snow was frozen hard on top. This let me cut most of the firewood I was planning to bring in this spring, except what was under the snow. Once the snow melted and we got some dry weather I went out with the tractor and only had to do a little bit of cutting and to load the wood. This saved a lot of time and I got the main shed and the extra area filled in April. There is some wood that I cut that I have not been able to collect since the ground is still too wet. I will use it to fill the auxiliary shed where we keep summer wood, which will be empty soon. We are lucky to have a good supply of wood available, especially when the weather and thus the amount of wood needed is so variable from year to year.
The boiler damper motor died in April and we ordered a new one. During the 4 or 5 days before delivery I had to manually open or close the damper on the back of the boiler each time it turned on or off. This was a bit inconvenient but at least we were still able to use the boiler, and it would have been much worse if it had happened during the winter.
In late April I ordered the materials for the front side of the roof of the barn in which we live. I had hoped to start on this job at the beginning of May, but we are two weeks in and it has been raining almost every day. Last year I did the back side and it took about 6 weeks with some interruptions for weather and other work, and I expect the front to take slightly longer, once I get started. The kitchen alterations I wrote about in the last newsletter got done, and came out pretty well. It’s nice to have the dishwasher out of there, and to have more functional cabinets and drawers.
Last summer while mowing the fields I broke the knife in the haybine. The machine is about 50 years old, so breakdowns are to be expected. We just bought a new knife which will be an improvement over the old one since it has sickle sections that are bolted on instead of riveted. This will make it much easier to replace broken sections, but it meant a bit more work to make the conversion. I am hoping that mowing will be more trouble-free this year.
The chickens didn’t go out from their winter coop till April this year because of the continuing bad weather, and at first they were getting out from their movable yard. At my mother’s suggestion I added some heavy wire mesh to the bottom of the yard which prevents them from scratching up the dirt and digging holes, and now they are staying in better. They have been laying very well this spring, since they are just a year or so old. At the time of this writing we have just gotten our piglet for the year and it seems very robust and healthy. We are having three days of rainy weather with highs in the 40s, but the pig seems to be doing okay so far and once it warms up I am sure it will be happier. Last week I went to town in the car one day and that evening I noticed oil drips on the road leading into our driveway. There was no oil trail going out, so the car must have sprung the leak while I was in town. I found that the external filter for the transmission oil had rusted through, so the next day I rode my bicycle into town in a downpour and got a new filter and some more oil. With my poncho I was able to stay relatively dry and luckily the repair was easy. The people who were bringing our piglet to the rendezvous in Barnes Corners were kind enough to postpone the trip by a day, since I found the leak the night before I was supposed to meet them in the morning. It was one of those incidents that is a bit inconvenient but could easily have been much worse if the oil leak had begun when we were on our way to get the piglet.
We’ve had so much rain that the brooks are still full in the middle of May. Blooms have held longer in the cool weather. The black flies are out and the mosquitos will be as soon as it warms up, but they should be kept in check by the bats we see flying at dusk, the swallows that have finally returned, and the frogs that are loud in this wet spring. I enjoy early morning birdsong with the migrants back setting up territory, but have missed the calls of the barred owls this spring.
Two college students are scheduled to volunteer, one in July and one in August. Local volunteers and gleaners who would pick what we can’t use and take it for themselves or to share would be welcome.